Iowa has been a disappointing exception in the fast-moving national effort to decriminalize marijuana. Possession remains a criminal offense with the possibility of incarceration, even as other states are taxing and regulating the cannabis plant.
Iowans appear to be evenly split on the prospect of fully legalizing marijuana for recreational use — 48 percent support the idea, while 48 percent are opposed and only 4 percent aren’t sure, according to Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll results published in February.
The state may not be quite ready for a legal marijuana marketplace like 12 other states already have or soon will have, such as neighboring Illinois. There is a sensible middle ground that would modernize the law without moving too quickly: allow cities to determine their own penalties.
One Cedar Rapids City Council candidate has made decriminalizing marijuana a prominent plank of his election platform. Jorel Robinson told The Gazette editorial board this month that he would seek a public vote on a plan to enforce marijuana prohibition with small fines, instead of the possibility of arrests and jail sentences.
Government officials say formal marijuana decriminalization is not currently within the city’s purview. However, that could change if the state Legislature takes appropriate action.
Under Iowa law, cities cannot make municipal infractions out of serious misdemeanors, which is how marijuana possession currently is classified. Last year, the Iowa Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill reducing first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana to a simple misdemeanor, which could have afforded municipal governments a higher degree of local control over marijuana enforcement.
That bill failed to advance out of the Iowa House last year, but advocates are hopeful lawmakers will make another attempt during next year’s legislative session.
In the absence of legislative action, city leaders are not totally powerless.
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Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart and Iowa City Police Sgt. Derek Frank both told The Gazette police officers have some level of discretion over marijuana enforcement.
City councils can direct their police chiefs, formally or informally, to make minor drug crimes a low enforcement priority.
For now, cities are in the unfortunate position of enforcing overbearing drug laws imposed by the Legislature, even as almost everyone acknowledges marijuana reform is inevitable, sooner or later. Iowa lawmakers should work next year to move this issue forward.
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